His Grace, the Duke of Ankh, Commander Sir Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, is being dragged against his will, at the demand of his wife and to the great amusement of his colleagues, on a lovely country holiday at Lady Sybil’s family estate, Ramkin Hall. Actually, it’s now Vimes’s estate -Sybil “had transferred all the holdings of her family […] to him in the old fashioned but endearing belief that a husband should be the one doing the owning”. Poor Vimes, however, can’t quite settle into his position as a member of the aristrocracy, as he demonstrates by trying to treat the servants as equals, to their complete and utter horror.
And of course he can never stop working. Whatever Sybil’s hopes for her holiday with her husband and young son, you couldn’t beat the copper out of Vimes with a truncheon. From the moment he arrives he can’t help but look for something amiss. And of course he finds it. And a hell of a lot of trouble. But Sam Vimes wouldn’t be Sam Vimes if he wasn’t pissing someone off in the quest for justice. In Snuff he boots the aristocrats off their comfy cushions by investigating their suspected involvement in slavery, smuggling, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and murder, (especially after they try to frame him for the latter).
Pratchett’s Discworld novels typically feature some kind of social commentary and with issues like those it’s particularly heavy here. Vimes has always fought against discrimination, particularly between classes and species, and thanks to him the Watch includes dwarves, trolls, vampires, werewolves, an Igor and a Nac Mac Feegle.
In Snuff it’s the goblins’ turn to get the equal rights treatment. As the Discworld’s most osctracised race, they are widely considered to be vermin. When Vimes finds out that a goblin girl has been murdered, most people assume that you can’t actually murder a goblin in the same sense that you can’t murder a rat. It isn’t even considered illegal. But Vimes knows the difference between right and wrong and he learns more about the goblins, who are revealed to a sensitive, artistic people who, unfortunately, have internalised all the terrible things others have believed about them. Goblins have always been associated with rubbish to the extent that they essentially think of themselves as rubbish. And they are a bit of a tough case when it comes to being accepted by society. They’re ugly, stinky, known for being violent, have a habit of stealing things, they live underground and their language “at its best sounded like a man jumping up and down on a very large packet of crisps”. The goblins have a strange, somewhat religious, practice called Unggue, according to which “everything that is expelled from a goblin’s body was clearly once part of them and should, therefore, be treated with reverence and stored properly so that it can be entombed with its owner in the fullness of time”. This includes “earwax, finger- and toenail clippings, and snot” (but luckily not urine or faeces) all of which are stored in stunningly beautiful pots made by the goblins.
But these oddities serve to throw into sharp relief the way difference is translated into discrimination, and how discrimination turns prejudice into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Vimes is determined to change society once again, and this includes changing the way people think about goblins and taking down the local council of magistrates who have redefined the law the suit their own interests.
With all this between its covers, Snuff turned out to be the darkest of the Discworld novels I’ve read so far. It has a lot less humour than the others, and anyway the humour tends to be downplayed by the more sombre elements. My opinion on the matter was sealed when Vimes told an anecdote about a man who chopped his dog’s back legs off with an axe. I certainly hadn’t expected something that gruesome and disturbing.
Rest assured, it’s still mostly a comedy, if not quite as funny as fans might expect. Some of the best humour comes from Young Sam, who is now six years old and obsessed with poo. I feel a bit childish admitting this, but his poo comments almost always got a giggle out of me.
“Do you know,’ said Young Sam, as if imparting the results of strict research, “cows do really big floppy poos, but sheep do small poos, like chocolates.”
As always, there are some great characters too; my favourites were Willikins, Vimes’s butler and general manservant who possesses some incredible talents when it comes to weapons; Lady Sybil, whose kind but domineering nature never fails to amuse and impress me; and Wee Mad Arthur who I love for being so angry and crazy. Vimes himself has never been one of my favourites – I admire him but I just don’t find him all that funny or particularly endearing.
So what do I think of Snuff in general? It’s good, but not Pratchett’s best. To his credit, I don’t think any of his books are bad – they range from decent to fucking brilliant and hilarious. As I’ve mentioned, this one is certainly not hilarious and I’m not sure that I like it being so serious. Towards the end the novel turns into a kind of dire action sequence (with a lot of jokes based on the word ‘fanny’) and then winds down and takes a bit too long to wrap everything up, a lot like the last Lord of the Rings movie – there are a bunch of things that need to be sorted out, but somehow it still feels like the story should end now, only to have it keep going.
It might be unfair to judge a book based on my expectations of how fun and funny I expected it to be, especially as this is a good book in its own right. On the other hand this is the latest (the 39th) in a long and much-loved series that’s defined by its unique style, and Pratchett usually has a better balance of social commentary and humour. I’ve often heard people speak of the Discworld series as their go-to books when they’re in a reading slump and want something light, or just want to relax and have a laugh with a favourite series. If that’s what you’re looking for, Snuff might not be the best choice. Rather just enjoy it as a new story in the Discworld universe.